Opinion: Ukraine – The Fight for Freedom

By: Caroline Casey
Section Editor

Is the world on the brink of war? This is the question that everyone has been asking while watching the dramatic events in Ukraine unfold. These events deeply touch me: my family is of Ukrainian heritage, and I still have relatives there who have been living through the crisis. My family is very representative of many families living in Ukraine in terms of ethnic composition – a combination of deep Ukrainian and Russian roots.

The unfolding debate about pro-Russian vs. pro-Ukrainian forces is artificially created and fueled by people who are not concerned about Ukrainians or Russians, but who are obsessed with power, control and a desire to rebuild a 19th century empire. Similarly, justifying annexation of Crimea by claiming it was part of Russia before 1954 is wrong. It obscures the illegitimacy of Russia’s actions.

The initial protests started peacefully in November against the decision of ex-President Victor Yanukovich to align Ukraine with Russia instead of integrating Ukraine into Europe. As the government began using force against the protestors, the focus of people’s demands sharpened to include elimination of corruption and embezzlement of public funds, and establishing true political and economic freedoms. Meeting these demands would have effectively meant taking Ukraine out of Russian influence, which Putin would not allow to happen. The killings of more than 80 civilians in February by government forces led to the fall of Yanukovich and the escalation of Russian-Ukrainian tensions as the progressive interim government took hold.

Russia did not take long to respond. Although there had been no visible pro-Russian protests before, all of a sudden, unknown groups started staging pro-Russian rallies and fights in different parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Within days, masked and heavily armed military units took over the Crimean parliament, airports and major cities. It became clear that Russia was targeting annexation of Crimea. Strong military presence guaranteed that the staged referendum in Crimea on joining Russia would be a success.

Russia’s claims that it is protecting the Russian-speaking population are fabricated and the world will see through them. Ukrainians, Russians and Tatars, the truly native people of Crimea, have been peacefully living together in Crimea since Ukraine became independent over twenty years ago. In fact, the Tatars who were persecuted and deported from their land by Stalin, finally started coming back from exile and reestablishing their homeland in Crimea. The Tatars and Ukrainians in Crimea were intimidated and were either afraid to cast their vote in the referendum or boycotted it. They have nothing against the Russian people, but they don’t want to live in the system Putin established where freedom of speech is suppressed, journalists are killed and political opponents are jailed.

Russia’s other claim that it had the right to get back its former land also does not stand. Although, it is true that Crimea was transferred in 1954 from the Russian part of the Soviet Union to the Ukrainian part, Russia’s actions are a direct violation of international law, as set out by the United Nations. Russia did not return its land, as Putin claims, but it illegitimately annexed territory of a sovereign nation. Ukraine was promised and guaranteed by Russia along with the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances that its territorial integrity and security would be protected when it gave up its nuclear arsenal. Russia violated this agreement. Russian actions in Crimea have also directly violated the United Nations Charter of 1945 that established the post World War II international system based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Although some people tried to compare the Crimean crisis to other wars fought in different parts of the world, no civilized country since World War II has so boldly claimed a sovereign nation as its own territory by force. European borders were divided many times among different countries until the end of World War II.  That was the reason why the post-war international system was designed to prevent forceful revisions of those borders.

Russia’s violent actions met with little resistance. As with any agreements and international treaties, if one side breaches an agreement, the other side should be able to enforce it. While the West criticizes Moscow and imposes sanctions, little has been done to stop Russia’s aggressive behavior. The Western powers are attempting to diplomatically solve the situation, but while the world attempts to prevent another world war, Ukraine remains helpless as Russia is assembling military force along the Ukrainian borders.

The world should remember the actions of pre-World War II Nazi Germany. While the world powers did not want to confront it, Nazi Germany, claiming that it was protecting the German-speaking population, began occupying the Rhineland, then annexing Austria and then occupying Czechoslovakia. While the major world powers were trying to prevent a war, much like Western powers today are doing, Germany was becoming more aggressive and assertive and the war became inevitable. Like in Germany in the late 1930s, Russia is building nationalism inside the country as the main ideological platform in support of the actions of the current regime. The dangers of the situation and the historical comparisons cannot be underestimated.

The conflict in Ukraine today is not about Ukrainians being against Russians, but rather about a struggle by the people of Ukraine for freedom, self-determination and democracy, against dictatorship.